A report in the national press today quotes a Libyan rebel leader crediting donkeys with helping to free the town of Gharyan by keeping supplies running to fighters trapped in the besieged town. Thanks to their intelligence and stoic natures, donkeys and mules have played a vital role throughout history in supporting armies and keeping supplies moving under otherwise impossible circumstances.
Colonel Gaddafi, in a broadcast on state television on 20th August, blamed ‘the donkeys of the gulf’ for keeping rebels supplied with weapons. As highly intelligent animals, donkeys are usually better known for their work as lifelines to humans worldwide, living and working amongst some of the poorest communities on the planet. However, they are also often used in dangerous conflict situations which other animals would be unable to cope with, particularly in countries where the terrain is rough, such as Libya or Afghanistan, where many areas are inaccessible to vehicles making donkeys the preferred method of supply.
The Sanctuary’s donkey behaviour expert Ben Hart says: “It is a common misconception that donkeys are just small horses with big ears, but in fact they are an entirely different animal, particularly when it comes to intelligence. Donkeys have phenomenal memories and are able to remember complex routes, plus recognise humans and other donkeys even after many years of separation. Their temperament coupled with their intelligence makes them better equipped to cope and remain calm in difficult situations.”
The Kosovan conflict made use of donkey-power, with the charity becoming involved in the extraordinary case of a mule and two donkeys who had been placed under arrest by the British Army in 2002. The rebel fighters were using the animals to smuggle guns across the border and had trained the donkeys to travel unattended to prevent fighters from getting captured. In the absence of humans to take into custody, the army placed the animals under arrest. The Donkey Sanctuary was contacted by a British Brigadier for advice on caring for the donkeys and mule and the three were signed over to the charity’s care. All three were transferred to the charity’s sanctuary in Spain, El Refugio De Burrito.
During World War II, mules were used to carry supplies behind enemy lines in Burma. Due to the danger of the situation, the thousands of mules used for this task underwent a procedure removing their voice boxes to keep them silent during manoeuvre. Andrew Trawford, director of veterinary services, said the wartime practice of de-voicing mules was taught as a history lesson at vet school. He said: "The operation is quite simple and not too traumatic for the animal, but its welfare afterwards can be a concern. The animal is not able to communicate and mules are naturally noisy, especially when trying to attract a mate and it is said their call can be heard to up to two miles away. It is not an operation I have ever had to perform."
To remember the many animals killed in wars a memorial was erected in Park Lane in London in 2004. The main dedication reads: ‘This monument is dedicated to all the animals that served and died alongside British and allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time’. A smaller inscription reads: ‘They had no choice’. The western section of the memorial features two heavily-laden mules climbing the steps. The memorial has the name of our founder, the late Dr Elisabeth Svendsen, inscribed on the wall - 'honouring the fallen'
For an interview, further information or images, please contact The Donkey Sanctuary press office on 01395 573097/573014, mobile 07970 927778 or via email.